Save The Assistants / Interview with Lilit Marcus

I am friends with Lilit Marcus. She is a great writer, is fun to work with, and is an all-around fantastic person.

But before I was friends with Lilit and was aware of her general fantasticness, I knew who she was, because she is the mastermind behind a little blog that you might have heard of called Save The Assistants. The blog has been turned into an equally fascinating book by the same name, which I was lucky enough to score an advance copy of a few months back. I devoured it in less than a day: it’s roll-around-on-the-floor funny, contains some stellar advice, and is a must-read for anyone who is, will be, or ever has been an assistant. It’s also a must-read for everyone else, because you don’t need to be snagging coffee for Satan in order to appreciate her gems of wisdom.

Lilit was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk shrieking bosses, Jet Blue flight attendants, and how to stay sane while working a 9-5 that’s not exactly your dream job.

Interview after the jump!

Q. What inspired you to start Save the Assistants (the blog)?

A. I started STA (the blog) while at my second assistant job. My first assistant job was the typical work crazy hours/get yelled at constantly/hate your life kind of job, but my second assistant job was really different. I was doing the same kinds of work – answering phones, coordinating schedules – but I worked for a boss who was really smart and kind. He became a kind of mentor for me and helped me get promoted within the company to an editorial job. I started Save the Assistants because I realized it was possible to have an entry-level job and pay your dues in a given industry without being unhappy or being treated like dirt. I wanted to create an online forum where all assistants from all industries could come and connect with each other by sharing stories, trading advice, and giving support.

Q. How is the book different from the blog?

A. The blog is a lot of fun to write because there are always stories and memes in the news that I can respond to – two recent ones were the JetBlue flight attendant who quit in a huff and the hoax story where the assistant quit via a slideshow. However, most of that stuff is forgotten within a week. I wanted the book to be more timeless. For one thing, it takes about a year for the average book to get from contract to publication, so you don’t want the whole book to be outdated by the time it’s released. But I also wanted the book to be more of a manual that any assistant could pick up at any time, without any context, having never heard of the blog, and still find relevant and helpful. There are pop culture references in the book, but they’re from classic movies and TV shows.

Q. Your number-one favorite Assistant Horror Story?

A. I don’t know if I can choose just one horror story, but here’s one that I use as an example all the time. An assistant in a law office wrote in about how her boss would yell orders to her from the opposite side of the office, and the order would always begin with “I NEED….” And end with “…. please.” It’s such a perfect way to crystallize the way that many bosses think that they’re being nice by saying please and thank you but miss the bigger picture, which is that screaming at someone from across the office is fucking rude, no matter what you tack on at the end. A lot of contemporary bosses have taken sensitivity courses and think of themselves as such nice people, but they’re missing the point. And that lawyer story sums it up exactly.

Q. I quit my job managing a law firm when I received some nasty emails from coworkers after I asked them not to wear flip-flops in the office (per company policy). Did you have a “last straw” moment? What did you do?

A. I don’t think I had a last straw moment. There’s a word, “microinequities,” that means little slights or offenses piling up over a long time. That’s kind of how my assistant job was. There wasn’t one specific thing that made me decide to leave. It was just that after a lot of little injuries – being yelled at, being told I was stupid, being blamed for stuff I hadn’t done, etc – one day I reached a point where I either had to quit or have a nervous breakdown. Luckily, I chose the former.

Q. As an assistant, where do you draw the line between things that are annoying but part of your job, and things that are simply unacceptable?

A. Everyone has their own line. Whatever yours is, you should know it before you start a job. Is it being asked to do something you find immoral or unethical? Is it being criticized for your appearance or dress? Is it being required to work on a religious holiday? Is it racism, sexism, or homophobia? No one else can tell you where to draw the line – you have to decide for yourself, and stick with your decision. Ultimately, you’re the one who has to live with yourself.

Q. I just read an article in Real Simple where the author discussed her guilt over employing a housekeeper, and how she went overboard trying not to seem like a “boss” (cleaning the apartment herself before the housekeeper arrived, driving her home after work, overpaying her, etc). Do you think this is common, especially among women? What advice would you give to an employer who is uncomfortable telling his/her employees “what to do”?

A. Oh, I was so guilty of that. The last chapter of my book is about how to manage people. For many people who had bad assistant experiences, we resist becoming managers so that we can never become bad bosses. However, I don’t believe that most bad bosses are bad people – I think many of them are people who weren’t prepared to manage or didn’t have additional help and support when they moved into a management position, so they aren’t as good at it as they could be. When I was assigned an intern at a former job, I was a terrible boss. No, I didn’t scream at him or make fun of him, I just refused to manage him. I didn’t feel comfortable assigning him work, so I did it all for him. That was nice in the short term, but when he got assigned more and more responsibility he messed up badly because no one had worked with him on the fundamentals. I was a bad boss because I was too passive, and that can hurt someone just as much. In my case, the reason I was so intimidated by the thought of having an intern was because I was raised to be a nice Southern girl who kept my head down and didn’t tell other people what to do. It was hard to unlearn some of that behavior.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who feels “stuck” in her career and dreams of doing something more creative, but doesn’t know how to make that happen?

A. The best advice I can give anyone, no matter what job they have, is to always remember who you are outside of the office. I’m lucky now because I have a job that I really love, but it’s still important to make time for other things I care about, like my friends, my family, my non-work writing projects, and causes I care about. When I first moved to New York, I couldn’t get a writing job to save my life. So while I worked crappy admin jobs that had nothing to do with my real interests, I wrote as much as I could in my spare time – that often meant writing for free, or getting bylines on websites no one had heard of. But it didn’t matter. If you really love something, you’ll keep doing it, even if no one pays you or you have to schedule it in at weird times. It was my outside-of-work writing, including Save the Assistants, that eventually helped me get the job I have now. Not only will pursuing your interests outside of work help you get experience doing what you really want to do, it’ll also make you feel good about yourself and relieve some of that stress you accumulate between 9 and 5.

Click HERE to buy Save the Assistants: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace!

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