Firings and Viagra: What Your Office Janitor Knows

The people who toil in low-profile support jobs often know a lot about exactly what’s happening inside your company.
The people who toil in low-profile support jobs often know a lot about exactly what’s happening inside your company.

Summary

Executive assistants, janitors, IT pros and other office workers in support roles know more than you think.

They’ve overheard talk of imminent firings, extravagant personal expenses and unprescribed Viagra use. The people who toil in low-profile support jobs often know a lot about exactly what’s happening inside your company.

“There are a lot of things that I have heard or seen but can’t divulge," says Suzy Dichairo, an executive assistant for 20 years. “So-and-so is cheating on their spouse—that type of scenario."

Dichairo, who assists the head of an investment firm in Maryland, says discretion is paramount in her line of work. She sometimes knows more about executives’ health and relationships than their family members do, which can put her in tight spots. But she always safeguards the secrets of her past and present bosses.

From executive assistants who pop into board meetings with lunch to janitors who mop within earshot of after-hours banter, workers who seem like the office equivalent of extras on a movie set are often privy to more than those in starring roles realize.

At minimum, they see sides of people that most others don’t. A custodian at a major research university told me he was tickled to discover while vacuuming that a noted professor watches “Real Housewives." Another time, he slipped into a conference room to empty the trash and noticed that a faculty member appeared to be picking his fantasy football roster instead of taking notes.

Many workers—from the chief executive to the rank and file—would do well to be more cautious about what they share when extra ears are present, says Teresa Leigh, whose agency helps wealthy people find professional and household staff.

“I hear lots of stories about drivers mimicking the investments of the people they drive around because they overhear phone conversations," she says.

Stock tips are one thing. In extreme cases, landscapers, construction managers and others who stand to win large contracts from a business or family have used eavesdropped information to curry favor with Leigh’s clients. Her general guidance for her staff isn’t to interfere unless there is danger—as in the case of a private-duty nurse who overheard a conversation about off-the-books Viagra and knew the drug could interact calamitously with an aging executive’s other medications.

Dichairo says that with all she sees and hears, she’s developed a keen understanding of whose internal stock is rising and whose is falling. Indicators include who executives make time to meet with and how they talk about employees behind closed doors.

Still, she doesn’t know everything. She doesn’t have access to her boss’s email account.

Circle of trust

Email access signifies entry to the innermost circle of trust, according to executives, EAs and the recruiters who match them. The dozen I spoke with say the prevalence of email access is hard to measure, but they generally agree that more executives are taking back control of their inboxes or using high-tech tools to do the sorting.

Having an assistant triage messages can be a tremendous time saver, but it also removes a layer of privacy and can be risky if a company faces legal action and an EA is deposed.

“One of the key questions we’ll ask an executive when we’re placing his or her EA is: Will this person have access to your emails?" says Ruthanne Roth, founder and CEO of Aster Talent, an executive-search firm that also scouts support staff. “Sometimes the reaction we get is ‘absolutely not.’"

Clifford Young, CEO of metal fabrication company Anatomic Iron, says he would love to have his EA manage his emails. But others on his leadership team—who happen to be family members—are uncomfortable with that idea.

He nevertheless considers his assistant indispensable because she manages his calendar, travel, expenses and even orders personal items for his household. He says he trusts her completely and worries that workplaces could lose their human touch as automation grows.

Artificial intelligence is a growing threat to administrative and service jobs. Janitorial roles will increase at one-third of the rate of the overall workforce between 2022 and 2032 as robots do more of the cleaning and half-empty offices require less of it, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection. Government forecasters expect EA positions to shrink 21% over the same period.

“We can automate tasks with AI and Calendly and replace jobs with robots, but it will just increase the pressure and expectations on those that remain," Young says. “We need to attribute the great value that all people bring to our organizations, from the janitor to the mailroom staff to the CEO and all positions in between."

One sign that such appreciation is rare: NFL running back Derrick Henry’s shout-out to the Tennessee Titans’ cleaners and cafeteria workers during a season-ending news conference this week went viral on social media.

Dead man walking

Moses Shuldiner, retired from his IT job at a financial firm in Toronto, says higher-ranking co-workers used to chat freely when he was summoned to troubleshoot software or equipment.

“It’s like I was actually part of the computer in their minds," he says.

Sometimes he was present for deliberations about promotions. His impression: Getting ahead was more about being a go-with-the-flow colleague than it was about performance.

Then there were occasions when his network-administrator status gave him access to drafts of revised org charts, showing someone was about to be let go. Shuldiner has seen the soon-to-be-departed men and women roaming the halls. This could be useful, he adds, because prioritizing computer upgrades was part of his job.

“If I knew people were disappearing, I didn’t do it for them," he says.

Yikes. If your request for a new MacBook is stalled, a fly on the wall might know something you don’t.

Write to Callum Borchers at callum.borchers@wsj.com

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