Boundaries: Knowing When to Stop
Hi, fellow assistants! I would like to introduce myself. Let’s call me Jordan. Like you, I walk the showbiz assistant beat. While I was reading the blog by JDUBZ, it dawned on me that an important subject to discuss is boundaries. Let’s face it: assistants have to be the ones that set them. When you go through the door for the first time as an assistant, walk in with an idea of what you will and will not put up with, period. It’s essential for every assistant to protect her or himself. That is, unless you want to be driving down a canyon with a car with no brakes. Let me explain…Everybody Is a Star
A huge boundary that is often crossed is how many people you will accept responsibility for when you sign up for the job as personal assistant. (I’ll get to the car with no brakes later.) Your employer writes your paycheck. Therefore, your employer must be your primary responsibility: your Number One focus. Celebrities are well-known for being incapable of running their own lives. That’s why they have assistants, publicists, stylists, managers, agents, therapists, estate managers, accountants, nannies, housekeepers and attorneys, among others who tend to them. Thank God they need us.
The problem begins when everyone in the celebrity’s life starts thinking that because they are married to the celebrity, dating the celebrity, they are the ex-spouse of the celebrity, the entourage to or a distant relative of said celebrity, that they also deserve the same star treatment as your celebrity boss. That means that somehow, they expect you to work for them too (free of charge, of course.) Without proper boundaries, before you know it, your primary job (taking care of the celebrity) will take a backseat to the endless needs of the celebrity’s entourage. It’s the proverbial slippery slope. One day you will be coordinating a press junket with your employer’s publicist. The next thing you know, you’ll be asked to lend the celebrity’s boyfriend a stamp. It’s an innocent request. You don’t want him to feel like he’s not as important or undeserving of simple courtesy. Then he will ask you to mail the letter for him. “No problem”, you say. You want to be agreeable. Before you know it, you’ll be expected to drop everything you’re doing for your boss in order to accommodate the requests of your employer’s boyfriend. And then, it will be a favor you’ll be asked to do for his mother…brother…cousin…childhood friends.
By the time you’ve realized that it’s too late, you’ll be up to your neck in requests from needy people that will haunt you. They will fight over you. Suddenly, it will be your job to make excuses for them when they want to cancel an appointment that they had no intention of keeping in the first place. They’ll need your help and connections to score concert tickets…take their dog to the vet…take their mother to lunch…pay their child’s parking tickets for them. And there will be your employer, who will resent it all. Of course, it will be your fault. You should have said no. And of course, that’s true. We’ve all been there and it’s no fun. It usually starts out with good intentions on your part and ends badly for you. Here’s where we get to the car with no brakes.
A while ago my celebrity’s live-in girlfriend asked me to drive her car to the BMW dealer for repairs. A little back story is necessary at this point. This particular girlfriend (let’s call her Lucy) was a reasonably successful C-List celebrity on a successful television series. She could well afford a personal assistant but hated to spend her own money on anything. She was able to cut her costs by mooching favors off of me while my employer paid for it. The problem was that besides taking up valuable work time that would be better spent on the job I was being paid for I would be miserable whenever I did her a favor. As my favorite aunt liked to say “No good deed goes unpunished.” Truer words were never spoken especially when spoken about Lucy. Working for her was always a problem. Any package we FedExed for my celebrity employer made it to its destination with no drama. Whenever something was shipped on Lucy’s behalf it would be the only package out of thousands that FedEx ever lost. She was just a trouble magnet.
Foolishly I agreed (against my better instincts) to help her. She was in a hurry; a limo was picking her up to take her to an important appointment. Would I mind bringing her car in at the dealer for a simple check-up? Well of course I minded. Besides never thanking me (let alone paying me for being her de facto assistant) she was asking me to give up my lunch hour to drive to Westlake and back. I had a ton of work to do for my employer but out of misplaced helpfulness I agreed to her request. As she drove off in her limo she threw me the car keys. I tried to start the car; no luck. One of my co-workers came over to help me. He couldn’t get the car started either. Eventually we called AAA. Thirty minutes into my lunch hour the tow truck driver arrived. He jumped the car with cables and told me not to turn it off for another thirty minutes. I was halfway down the street before I noticed there was no gas in the car…and I could not turn it off to stop at a gas station on the way to the dealer. Anyway I wouldn’t be able to do it because Lucy hadn’t given me any money to pay for gas and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy it for her. But then again I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. There’s was nothing I could do but keep on going and hope to not stall in the middle of nowhere.
It wasn’t until I was going downhill through a canyon that I realized that the car had no brakes. By thenI had broken out in a cold sweat and was praying that no one cut me off. I wouldn’t have been able to stop if they did. It was one of those moments when your life flashes before your eyes. You wonder if you’re going to make it through the day intact. When I finally reached the BMW dealership the mechanic gave the car the once over. He discovered that the car needed massive repair work. The engine was damaged and the oil in it was like tar. Lucy hadn’t had the oil changed in at least a year.
It wasn’t because she was too busy working to handle her car maintenance. She just didn’t want to bother. This had become a pattern in her behavior. After all she could always depend on me to deal with the messes she left because I was so convenient and available since I worked at her boyfriend’s house. Meanwhile I was stuck in the Valley with an unsafe vehicle that I couldn’t drive back to work in. The favor Lucy asked for ended up taking almost four hours of my time and almost caused me a heart attack. (Oh and by the way? Lucy never even thanked me for my trouble in case you were wondering.) Did I blame her for putting me in that position? Yes I did.
My employer blamed me for accommodating her needs instead of taking care of my job which was to take care of him. It didn’t matter to him that he’d told me many times to do her favors whenever she needed help no questions asked. He couldn’t set boundaries either. The bottom line was that for four hours he had no assistant and he was frustrated. That was many years ago.
The lesson I learned from the experience was that in a way it kind of was my fault. I owed it to myself and I owed it to him to take care of business first. If and when I had the time or inclination to help Lucy it would have to be only after my primary duties were met. I now know that if I’d set that boundary at the beginning I wouldn’t have been racing downhill in a canyon in a potential deathtrap. The next time someone other than your boss asks you to do a favor remember your boundaries first before you agree to something you ll regret later.