Tired of being treated as support staff while doing executive-level work


Reader: I have been at my job for many years and am on my fourth progressive job title. The problem is that for as long as I have been here, I have held executive-level responsibilities while being treated as an underling. I am expected to present at events alongside executives and to offer guidance based on my experience, but I have been sidelined from “team building” and put on a need-to-know basis about many things.

I’ve heard some words of encouragement, but never any commitment to changing my situation. Every year I’m told I am “indispensable” and that there are opportunities for growth, but positions above me are filled from the outside. I have been here long enough to know that going to human resources would only result in passive-aggressive maltreatment.

I’m often relegated to being a personal assistant. We have support staff available, but the executives regularly email me documents to print and deliver, have me schedule meetings, and interrupt my work to have me plug and unplug electronic equipment for them.

A part of me feels I am being kept in this servile position because of my sexuality, as I am the only gay person in the office. I am regarded as a high-functioning behind-the-scenes “ace assistant,” something that I realize has been done to women since they entered the white-collar workforce.

I like my job. I like most of the people. I don’t want to leave. I’ve created such a unique role for myself that I have difficulty determining what other positions I am qualified for. I have had trouble garnering responses to job applications or scoring interviews.

Would career coaching be beneficial? I’ve always been under the impression it’s not a worthwhile investment, but it may be my best option for improving my situation. If you think this would be worthwhile, how can I find someone effective?

Work Advice: I’m being offered a promotion, but I’m happy where I am

Karla: You definitely sound pigeonholed into a support position. I don’t know for sure whether it’s because you’re gay, but I do know that women, people of color and other marginalized workers frequently struggle to move beyond roles they’ve outgrown when they stay at the same company for a long time — especially if they don’t resemble the majority of faces in the C suite.

I’m sure conscious or unconscious bias plays some part in keeping management from envisioning them in higher-level roles. Also, odd as it sounds, management may worry it will be harder to replace and train reliable, competent support staff than it will be to bring in new executives.

And it’s possible that you are undermining your own growth in ways you don’t realize — that even though you have the qualifications for a higher position, and have asked about advancing, you’re unconsciously signaling that you’re content deferring to others. When you grant requests instead of deflecting them onto the appropriate staff, your responsiveness may seem so effortless that others don’t realize they’re imposing. Then again, declining those requests could be perceived as “not being a team player.” It’s a Catch-22.

I’ve been promoted, but my old boss seems to think I still work for him

No matter how many titles you hold, this employer is unlikely to see you in the role you envision for yourself. Changing your employer will be the fastest way to change your status.

But that change doesn’t need to happen right away, especially if you’re not yet practiced in presenting yourself as the candidate for the roles you want. That’s exactly what a career coach can help with: refining your résumé to emphasize your leadership readiness rather than your support skills, as well as projecting more executive presence in your demeanor and interview responses.

In fact, given how long you’ve been struggling with these challenges, you might even go beyond career coaching to a career counselor: someone with therapy training who can help you delve into your feelings and frustrations to help you identify and fully inhabit the professional persona you want others to see.

There is no single source for finding qualified career coaches or counselors who fit your needs. Targeted searches on LinkedIn or online discussion groups relevant to your field may turn up some coaching recommendations; your company’s Employee Assistance Program or your health insurance provider may be able to point you to career-focused counselors. Word-of-mouth referrals from friends and contacts outside your workplace can lead you to professionals who are especially attuned to your personal interests and challenges.

From there, it’s like engaging any service provider. Make some phone calls and have an initial consultation with a few providers to see if they feel like a good fit for you and your budget. Ask for references from current or past clients. Beware of too-good-to-be-true guarantees, especially ones that demand a steep upfront investment or that promise a one-size-fits-all solution.

I understand your reluctance to throw money at services you’re not sure you need. But when you’re stuck in a loop and nothing you’ve tried has worked, that is exactly the time to try something new.

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