THE BLOG
04/26/2014 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2014

Secretary, Administrative Assistant or Administrative Professional?

Not long ago I stopped by the office of a local school administrator. She was not in her office, but her new secretary -- on the job four days -- was. We talked a few minutes -- you know, small talk -- and then I asked if she had a card. Having the direct telephone number and e-mail of a person's secretary always makes it easier than going through the various voice messages and button-pushing so often required. She replied, "Oh, Dr. Bradshaw, I am only a secretary. I don't have a card. Being a secretary I will never have a card."

Through the years, I have met other secretaries who do not have their own cards, but this was the first time I had been given that explanation for not having one. What she said really bothered me -- implying that being "only a secretary" she was not important enough to have a card. I decided it was time for her to know the historical significance of being a secretary -- that being a "secretary" was an honor, not something to apologize for. So I said, "Let me tell you what being a secretary really means." And this is what I told her.

The word "secretary" can be traced back to as early as the sixth century and comes from the Latin word secretum, meaning "secret." By the twelfth century the title of "secretary" was being used to distinguish positions that had been "set apart" from other positions to handle very significant tasks that were of a sensitive or "secret" nature.

The title of secretary was originally used by military leaders, heads of state and even popes to refer to their most trusted confidants -- to the ones they could trust and rely on without reservation. Secretaries were set apart from others and known to be favored by their respective leaders. As time went on, "secretaries" were used in the same sense by professional and business leaders.

Being a secretary was so special that in 1942 the National Secretaries Association was founded, and in 1952 the United States began to celebrate National Secretaries Day. For reasons not understood by this writer, dissatisfaction with the title "secretary" emerged as if it were not a profession to take pride in, and there has been an on-going effort to find a title that symbolizes greater consequence than the simple word "secretary." The most popular new names are "administrative assistant" or "administrative professional."

I went on to point out to the new secretary of the school administrator that the cabinet positions appointed by the President of the United States are Secretary of State, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Labor and so forth -- not Administrative Assistant of State, Administrative Professional of Education or Administrative Assistant of Labor.

Likewise, our states have a Secretary of State, not an Administrative Professional of State. And most states require every corporation with its home office in that state to register with its Secretary of State. When registering, the official registration form usually requires the names of two officers of the corporation: the "President" and the "Secretary." I know of no state that asks for the name of a corporation's "Administrative Assistant." And the by-laws and articles of organization of all businesses, corporations and organizations I am aware of provide for having a "Secretary," not an "Administrative Professional."

I concluded by telling the new secretary that, as far as I was concerned, I would much rather be a secretary. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an administrative assistant or administrative professional, but such titles encompass a wide spectrum of administrative support positions -- some quite important; others not very significant. But being a true secretary means that you are an unusually important and trusted person. Executive after executive in the governmental, business and not-for-profit sectors will tell you that a trustworthy secretary is one of the most important persons on her or his team.

The secretary looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Oh, Dr. Bradshaw, thank you for explaining this to me. From now on I will like being a secretary, and I guess it really doesn't make much difference whether or not I have a card." She's right -- having a card doesn't make much difference. Besides, she's in for a pleasant surprise: the secretaries in that school district have cards, and she'll soon be getting hers.

In 1982 the National Secretaries Association changed its name to Professional Secretaries International and in 1998 became the International Association of Administrative Professionals. National Secretaries Day has been renamed Administrative Professionals Day and was observed nationwide on Wednesday of this past week, April 23. This was the sixty-third such observance. Administrative Professionals week is observed annually the last full week in April, with Wednesday of that week now designated as Administrative Professionals Day.

"Administrative Assistant" and "Administrative Professional" are very honorable positions. I did not write this column prior to this year's observance because I did not want to distract from the recognition that people holding such positions so rightly deserve. But now that Administrative Professional Day has been observed, I think it is appropriate to point out that, in my opinion, being a "Secretary" in the historical sense of the word is a great honor, and I would never apologize for being designated as such a trusted person. In fact, if I were a secretary, I would be really bummed by the never-ending efforts to replace the historic and respected title of my profession.