Admins Around the World
OfficePRO magazine, April 2004
From Ottawa to Săo Paolo to London to Denver, administrative professionals share more similarities than differences
BY ANYA MARTIN
While languages and dress codes may differ, admins around the world say that similarities outweigh differences when it comes to the job of administrative assistant. Here’s a glimpse into the ups and downs of working in a variety of countries from the perspectives both of natives and Americans who have worked abroad.
Admins in the United States and Canada have lots in common—from salaries to industry trends, says Liz Hughes, vice president of Menlo Park, California-based OfficeTeam, which specializes in administrative staffing in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Australia.
“The things hiring managers are looking for in the United States and Canada are similar, the types of support positions are similar, and so are the skills that are in demand,” Hughes says.
However, because both English and French are official national languages and the government mandates that every citizen should be able to receive any kind of service in his or her language of choice, many Canadian jobs require two languages—English and French, says Danielle Graham CAP, administrative assistant to the vice president of financial planning at SISIP Financial Services in capital city Ottawa, Ontario.
“It’s very difficult to get a job here unless you speak French, and when you do speak French, you’re judged on how well you know the language, how well you communicate, if you have proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation,” she adds.
Graham switches languages approximately 25-30 times daily, but while people tell her she speaks French “beautifully,” she admits she still feels more comfortable discussing complex topics with her boss in English.
“If my boss, who is a senior executive, has another senior executive in his office and they’re speaking French, if he calls me in, he’s going to speak in French,” Graham says. “If I choose to reply in English, it could appear rude.”
Sharon Y. Dawes CPS began her administrative career in Jamaica before moving to the United States in 1997. While landing many entry-level U.S. admin jobs requires only a high-school degree, Jamaican employers prefer candidates with degrees from a secretarial college or program, she says. Dawes earned her CPS rating in 1989 and feels it was much more recognized in Jamaica, where many companies pay for the exams.
“When I received mine, I was working at the Jamaica Telephone Co., and my picture was featured in the company newsletter, along with other secretaries who had received the designation,” Dawes says.
The amount of respect given to administrative staff varies by employer or manager, she adds. While admins are shifting from traditional to more managerial roles, Jamaican admins generally take on new tasks without giving up any of the old. Most Jamaican companies also require all staff to wear uniforms, including shoes and stockings, which are either provided or paid for through a uniform allowance, and laundry benefits. Some offices, though, now give employees a break on business-casual Fridays.
In Brazil, where the profession is regulated by law, admins still call themselves “secretaries,” and most have secretarial college or technical degrees, says Patricia Bretas, the international relations officer of FENASSEC (National Federation of Secretaries) in Săo Paolo. Still the scope of an admin’s job is increasingly expanding into project management, training, and recruiting, particularly in the southeast where most secretaries and multinational companies are located, she adds.
“The professional organizations in Brazil are the syndicates, one in each state of Brazil, which are gathered by the national federation (FENASSEC) where I work,” Bretas says. “These syndicates rep-resent the secretaries before the corporations, discussing the minimal salary for the professional, giving legal assistance at the time of dismissal, and also helping the secretaries to find another job. They give training sessions/courses, hold congresses and forums, and develop national and international contacts for admins to exchange experiences and grow.”
British admins also are doing much less dictation, shorthand, and telephone-answering and taking on more management tasks, according to OfficeTeam’s Summer 2003 National Salary & Workplace Survey. Other key findings include that one third are working longer hours than they did two years ago, and they’re working increasingly not just for one executive but for others in the office as well.
“All the research in the United Kingdom states that professional secretaries are much more involved in organizing events, training, and preparing management information,” says Steve Carter, managing director of OfficeTeam UK & Ireland. “Part of it is driven by the quality of the people entering administrative professions, who realize that it’s a career, not a job, and the fact that bosses are doing a lot of their own correspondence.”
Dress styles are becoming more informal, as in the United States, and admins call their bosses by their first names, he adds.
The work experience in Britain, however, also differs greatly depending on where your job is located, says Nicola Wright, an executive assistant with OfficeTeam parent company Robert Half International, who splits her workweek between London and Hampshire.
“In London, everything is done a lot faster,” she says. “It’s totally different people and everybody is obviously there for business. On the south side of England in Hampshire, people get their work done, but they’re not as high-strung as they would be in London.”
In the United Kingdom, admins with multilingual skills command higher salaries, but in mainland Europe, these skills are becoming increasingly mandatory for admins to land top jobs, Carter says.
“If you go to Belgium, you need to know three languages to be an assistant—Flemish, French, and English,” he adds. “Companies are doing more business country to country, and people have to correspond and communicate in more than one language.”
Other country-to-country differences are more cultural, Carter says.
“A German assistant is required to be more structured in the way she communicates with her boss,” he adds. “In France, you spend a lot more time organizing your boss and making sure he is in the right place at the right time, because the French market works very much around shaking hands and meeting places.”
Top-down management styles, how-ever, still predominate in Croatia, says Edita Andreis, a communication assistant at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Prior to coming to the United States in 2002, the 31-year-old spent nine years as an admin in Croatia, first for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and then for the World Bank County Office.
Hierarchy ruled, “although very often differences between the administration and management were only in years of experience, not education itself,” Andreis says. “Administration was considered ‘only as a support’ and played a secondary role.”
She believes a Croatian employer would never allow her to manage some of her current projects, such as producing the corporate video. While Croatian companies are following Western trends more closely, and admins are gradually taking on more managerial tasks, technological advances aren’t leading to higher compensation yet and the best work relationships are reaped by admins employed by Western entities, she says. However, admins do typically receive much more generous time off—four weeks of annual leave, plus lengthy paid maternity leave.
The Far East
If you enjoy a fast-paced, exciting work environment, then Hong Kong may be the place for you, says Rose Lam, regional administrative manager for Cotton Council International’s Hong Kong office, the trade promotion arm of the National Cotton Council of America. A sea of skyscrapers, Hong Kong is home to corporate offices of the world’s most exciting companies. Speaking a foreign language, such as English, French, or Japanese, can mean the opportunity to work for a large multinational company using cutting-edge technology. It can also lead to a doubling of salary, better benefits, and more respectful working conditions, not just in Hong Kong, but also in Shanghai and other major Chinese cities, says Lam, who speaks English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Lam has worked for American, British, and Chinese companies, but says she prefers Americans’ more casual attitudes and dress codes. Her office has casual Fridays and she calls her boss by his first name.
“The British are really formal, good dress, pantyhose [for women]; the men wear a suit and tie, business dress,” Lam says.
The reason British companies in Hong Kong may be more rigid than those in the United Kingdom is because as colonial British, they may have retained those values, Carter says.
“Chinese firms are also very strict and formal, more like the British,” says coworker Administration Officer Mabel Tam. “In a Chinese manufacturing firm, you are working very long hours Mon-day through Saturday, five-and-a-half days and for 12 hours, until 8 p.m. at night.”
Working as an admin for a Japanese employer is also more formal, often requiring uniforms, and admins are not as encouraged to take initiative, says Kanako Beringer, who was a secretary at Tokyo-based market research company, the Yano Research Institute, from 1994-98 and is now an administrative specialist for Hitachi America Ltd. in Washington, D.C.
“It depends on each company, but overall the situation is way behind,” Beringer says. “The main reason is that our infrastructure has not been set up yet to accept women as a real workforce. In Japan, admins are mostly women. In our country, ‘marriage retirement’ and ‘child-birth retirement’ are very common among women. Eventually, a lot of us are back to work, but as part-time normally. That means lower wages, limited roles, and no benefits.”
While management styles vary by the manager, Japanese admins and Japanese workers as a whole generally obey orders and try to avoid arguments, Beringer says. Still, the aspect of working in the United States that surprised Beringer the most was that Americans sometimes listen to music while they work.
“You’ll never see it in Japan,” she says. “One of the reasons is our office is very different from the office here. You cannot express your personal taste because [there’s] no space. Your coworkers are two feet away all the time.”
Middle East, India, and Africa
When Yvaine Schulz was helping to organize a seminar at a local restaurant in Alexandria, Egypt, she asked the restaurant owner two days before if he had an overhead projector. He assured her he did. But a day before the event, she found out he didn’t and had to scramble to find one at the last minute.
“In Egypt, they never say no because it is offensive, so you have to spend a lot of time talking to people, a lot of time before you do business,” says Schulz, a French-born admin who lived in Alexandria from 1999-2000 while her husband was employed as an engineer for USAID and now has started her own international virtual assistant business in Denver.
Otherwise, Egypt was very “advanced,” with admins using top technology, everybody having a cell phone, and women wielding power in high, supervisory positions, Schulz says. One reason might be that all working women came from a higher social stratum, because working-class women tend to stay home and raise families, she notes.
“Admins were respected, and actually I remember one who was very assertive,” she adds. “If you were asking her something and she didn’t want to do it right away, she would tell you to wait.”
Indeed, working in the Middle East can entail a certain amount of culture shock for any American, says Nancy Biondo, who served as administrative officer for a cell of U.S. Army personnel in Camp Doha, Kuwait, in both fall 2002 and spring 2003.
“Trying to get the daily work done is challenging,” she adds. “You can’t just order supplies; you can’t just go out and get what you need. You need logistics of finding where the stores are that you need to go to and making sure they accept the type of payment you have.”
Because of voltage difference, she couldn’t bring any electrical supplies from the States. However, she found that even if she bought printers and copiers in Kuwait, sometimes she had to call back home for cartridge refills. Plus, language barriers made shopping more difficult.
Biondo felt more comfortable dressing like a local woman in head scarf and abaya, a long, usually black, overdress. “Out of respect for their customs, I wore long pants and shirts that covered my curves when I did not wear an abaya,” she says.
“In India, I got to wear a salwar khameez—a long tunic with pants,” says Kam Ting Wong CPS who has worked for the U.S. State Department in five foreign countries since 1991. “Not only was this practical, it was infinitely more comfortable. They could be plain or as fancy as you wanted. You could blend in quite well with the rest of the local staff.”
Wong feels that admins she observed in developing countries, such as Tunisia, India, and Malaysia, did not win as much respect from their bosses as she observed in the United States and in Belgium. “Admin personnel are apt not to talk back or question authority,” she says. But she was impressed that worldwide, every-one seemed to use Microsoft Word and WordPerfect.
“I found it amazing in India where you could go into a little hole-in-the-wall office and [find] it equipped with the latest in technology—all the bells and whistles,” Wong says.
As an admin in South Africa, Evelyn Fourie has worked for numerous companies over a career spanning 30-plus years. For the past 15 years, she has supported one advocate (lawyer) in Pretoria who operates not just his own law firm but also engages in property investment and owns a sports club and an aloe vera factory.
“He allows me to make many decisions, to take on projects, and to even investigate further expansion locally and abroad,” Fourie says. “It is here that I have changed from a legal secretary to a personal assistant and administrative professional, also dealing with many staff-related matters, salaries, marketing, and just about anything you find in any company.”
Fourie has served as president of the Professional Secretaries Association of South Africa (PSA), which recently dumped the word “secretary” to become “The PSA—The Association for Office Professionals of South Africa.” She has attended two IAAP conventions, and she hosted the Third International Secretarial Summit in Cape Town six years ago.
“The types of tasks being undertaken by secretaries and office professionals were very similar, although I can safely say that South African companies were not quite as advanced as those in the United States, but not far behind either,” Fourie says.
While admin salaries and benefits still vary greatly and lag behind other countries, South African companies are allowing admins to take on more management responsibilities and easing into a more casual dress code, as companies employ younger and “trendier” admins, she adds. Technology is increasingly on par with U.S. companies, and more training courses and conventions have helped to encourage a greater awareness of both technological advances and other international trends in the field.
Being an admin in Australia is very similar to working in the United Kingdom in terms of business practices but is not as formal as in Hong Kong, says Carter, who is Australian.
“The Australian experience is much more akin to California than to New York,” he adds. “They’re much more dress-down/casual, more team-related, more involved; if you have a problem with your boss, you just go tell [him or her].”
The pace is more relaxed in New Zealand as well, where admins call their bosses by their first names, says Nilda Campbell, personal assistant to the national president of The New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) Te Riu Roa, a teachers’ union and professional organization in capital city Wellington. Campbell, who has served both as an affiliate on IAAP’s board and as national president and fellow of the Association of Administrative Professionals New Zealand (AAPNZ), says a typical day for her includes “checking the diary/appointments, prioritizing work-load, organizing meetings, answering phone calls, checking and replying to e-mail messages, attending to correspondence, processing letters/memoranda, attending meetings, booking travel and accommodations, and any other [things] that come up,” she says.
Anya Martin is a freelance writer in Decatur GA.
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