As you know, I have worked at quite a few reception desks and switchboards, and as a result dealt with much of the same-yet-different bullshit as when I was working behind a cash register full-time. I've been meaning to write this post for a while, not so much because I want to rant (although that is an inevitable part of it), but because I truly want people to know this information.
Receptionists, administrative assistants, and executive assistants are so-called because they play three very different roles within a company. I have heard many sneers at these terms; people claim they're all euphemisms for 'secretary' - indicators of an overly politically-correct society. This is partially true because, even though the first secretaries were men, it is today generally considered a gendered term. What do you think about when someone says the word 'secretary?' Personally I picture a young-ish, leggy blond the boss is either sleeping with or wants to sleep with. (But that could just be my perverted imagination.) If you think of Robert Gates or Hillary Clinton, good for you - but I still have a point to make.
But what does she actually do (and I say 'she' because, let's face it, I have yet to meet a male admin)? If her title is 'administrative assistant,' she typically handles phone calls, mailings, and orders at the department level. Executive assistants, on the other hand, deal only with one person or a small group of people at the top, and manage everything from client appointments to hotel reservations. Receptionists greet the public and route calls for the entire building, as well as check badges and alert security of any problems. Execs are paid the most, receptionists the least, and admins about in the middle.
Still, for most, these employees all fit under the secretarial umbrella. And for all their differences, they serve the same basic purposes: 1) to be the face of the company or individual they serve (and ideally a friendly one), 2) to serve as a barrier between their higher-ups and members of the public who have no business with them, and 3) to perform tasks that superiors either don't have time to do or consider beneath them.
Here is why I feel this is important to share: because in spite of all the righteous moaning I've heard from people and read on blogs about working in the service industry, some of the very people who advocate better treatment of staff by customers have shockingly disparaging things to say about administrative professionals. Perhaps they forget that these individuals deal with the public too - that the same assholes who don't tip and talk down to you just because you're a server turn around and pull the same shit at reception desks. (And I will be speaking primarily of that position since I am most familiar with it.)
The other thing you need to know is that you cannot expect that an admin or receptionist is familiar with every aspect of the company or willing or able to do certain things for you. They know extensions, people, and where the bathrooms are. They do not, as a rule, know whether an employee is in the office, when your appointment is, where your meeting is, numbers and addresses for other businesses, or what job opportunities are available. (This is especially true in buildings where hundreds of employees work.)
Obviously, in the case of all the companies whose desks I cover, reception and switchboard services get contracted out to another company - so the person you're talking to might not actually work for the company at all (another reason not to be too incredulous if a receptionist can't answer certain questions for you). For my part, I try to represent the company as best I can, because I know that people don't have any way of knowing that I'm a contractor just covering for the day. I'll try to help you within my capacity to help you, but if I cannot then that's it. The employees at the company are my customers, and I have to please them first. My choice is either to take shit from you, the guy/girl off the street who wants to talk to HR about a job application, or give in and call HR and get reamed for bothering them.
A word on jobs. I know you want one. I know times are hard. I know you want to stand out and look proactive and talk to somebody TODAY. But this isn't a restaurant or the year 1953. Hiring managers don't want to make time for you unless they schedule it after comparing you, on paper, to everyone else. People tell me they submitted an application and "no one's called me yet," as if it were a given that they were qualified and guaranteed a phone call, so they must need to clear it up in person. Or they complain about the online application. (Hint: If you're not intelligent enough to use the internet, you're probably not intelligent enough to get a job here.) I'm sorry I'm the one blocking you from what you hope will be an edge over the competition. But I promise, it's not really me who's doing it, and if you persist you will not look professional and assertive so much as desperate and pushy.
Also be aware that, in some cases, admins know more than they're allowed to divulge to protect the employees. At The Healthcare Company, for example, we don't *officially* have title information. So if you want to speak to the Director of Marketing about a "fabulous opportunity for growth" or the President about whatever petty little grievance you have regarding a product, you're SOL until you find a contact name. I don't expect anyone to really believe that I don't know who the President of the company is, but the rules are pretty much set up the way they are so that executives and employees don't have to deal with solicitors or angry consumers.
All this applies to callers as well as visitors. In general, the system works out pretty well to weed out the "wrong" people, but can cause some awkward situations if you've simply forgotten a last name or are trying to make a general inquiry about something and are getting nowhere. You'll often find that talking to a human is not necessarily any more efficient than dealing with a voice recording because companies are too big and individuals' expertise too specialized. The emphasis, then, is on security and transferring callers quickly. People with company contacts will always get priority treatment over everyone else, no matter what.
I wanted people to be aware of these things so they know that administrative types are not always the cold, dispassionate people they can appear to be. Nor are all receptionists and operators as dumb as they are trained to appear. Be polite, have a contact name, stick to the point, and I'll be more than happy to dump you on someone else.