The new assistant was only making my job harder
Toby: We know what works — why can’t you just accept direction?
Aviva: Why can’t I have the opportunity to make real change without being met with criticism?
People are always asking me what it’s like to work in PR.
“Basically, you put out ads and stuff?” was how my sister-in-law once tried to summarize it.
I thought about the myriad tasks that popped up in my inbox every day. I thought about website maintenance, social media presence, event organization, endless back-and-forth with designers and marketers, and the tight-fisted financial department that always needed convincing to part with money in order to make more. But my sister-in-law is a second-grade assistant; she’d never understand.
“Not exactly,” I told her.
I was thinking of that conversation when I pulled into a parking spot a block away from the office one morning. I loved my job, but there was no doubt that it’s hard work. It needs concentration and alertness, and at that moment, I was sorely lacking in both.
First thing I did when I arrived was make a coffee. Lani, my line manager, was occupied with the same thing, and she offered a comradely grin when I came over.
“Long morning, huh?”
“Long night, too,” I told her. My daughter had moved in with her newborn, and I’d been up at night to give her a break. To make matters more complicated, my mother-in-law hadn’t been feeling well recently, and my husband Aharon, who had been busy all evening helping her out, had to rush back there early in the morning to make sure things were okay. The baby was now safely asleep (at least, I hoped so), and so was my daughter. But I had to find some energy to get down to work for the next eight hours.
“Good news for you, Toby,” Lani chirped, after I finished my tale of woe. “I just got approval to hire you an assistant for the PR department. I even have someone in mind for the job. I’ll let you know if it all works out. In any case, hopefully we’ll have someone in place to work with you soon.”
“Really?” I’d been asking for an assistant for months. This was really perfect timing.
Lani confirmed it, and I settled down to work with new energy. An assistant — that would totally change things around here! For a moment, I daydreamed about sharing the burden — having someone else to take calls, answer e-mails, order supplies, brainstorm new ideas — and then I shook my head.
Right now, I needed to focus, not dream. But the assistant — whenever she appeared — would be more than welcome.
Aviva, when she arrived one morning, seemed sweet enough. I had to show her the ropes quickly. I had a meeting that morning — of course everything would happen at the same time — and I wanted to catch a moment to call Aharon. He’d taken his mother to the doctor this morning.
The meeting dragged on forever, like it always does, but this time it didn’t bother me so much. I’d left Aviva preparing a mailing campaign, which meant something was actually getting done even while I had to sit there and listen to endless back-and-forth on the same topic.
She looked suitably busy at the computer when I came back.
“How’s it going? Ready to print and stuff the envelopes?” I asked.
Aviva startled. “Oh! Hi! I didn’t notice you come in. Um, so I’m still doing the addresses. But look, what do you think of this? I thought the letter could do with a bit of pizzazz, it wasn’t so… you know, it looked pretty basic and standard, like they get these letters ten times a month. So I researched a bit, fonts-wise, what colors activate the generosity side of the brain. You know there’s studies and stuff?”
Wait, what? She hadn’t even finished the mail merge? I’d been gone nearly two hours.
“Here, look at this,” she was saying. I leaned over, lips tight.
In place of the formal document I’d sent, there was a pastel-colored background, swirly font for the addressee’s name, and the font of the main text had been changed, too. It looked, I don’t know, childish. Like a camp newsletter. Not like a professional appeal letter from a dignified organization.
For a moment, I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you like it?” Aviva asked, her voice a little anxious.
I thought of stern Mr. Phillips, one of our biggest donors, receiving such a letter. This was a disaster.
“You’ve, uh, worked really hard on this,” I said, firming up my voice. “Thing is, Aviva, for these donors, we need to stick with the old style, the tried-and-true, you know what I mean? Maybe save this design for the mishloach manos campaign or something.”
She bit her lip. But really, no one had asked her to mess around with the fonts. “Let’s just get on with the mail merge, okay?” I said, looking at my watch. Time was racing on and, of course, we were behind schedule again.
It didn’t stop there, either.
The next thing was the website. I was working on a bunch of phone calls, and gladly relegated the monthly website update to Aviva. She seemed capable enough on the computer, posting the videos with a short caption or two. I sneaked a peek at the front-end of the website. Well, her captions were a little quirky, not the usual style, but I could edit them later. For now, at least the bulk of the job was getting done.
Then Aviva cleared her throat. “Uh, Toby? I had a few ideas over here. Working on the website made me think about some overall upgrades we could make to the design. Maybe redo the home page and things. What do you think?”
What did I think? If we had endless time and money, maybe. But we didn’t. Our resources were so limited, we really couldn’t afford to do cute extras. The website worked, it was up to date, we needed to get on with the next job.
I tried explaining that, but Aviva was far too idealistic to hear of limitations.
“This is all stuff I can do,” she explained eagerly. “I’ve learned web design, and I’m not talking anything grand.” But then she went on, color schemes and font size and making the feel of the website more modern, more “2020,” if you please.
She just didn’t get it. We weren’t a cute, trendy fashion group or something. We were a high-profile nonprofit organization, and we had a system for these things. It had worked until now, and there was no reason it couldn’t keep working. The main thing we needed now was efficiency and simply to get things done. That’s why Aviva was hired in the first place. Not to waste more time and leave me with the same workload as before.
“It’s a nice idea,” I told her, trying to stay calm. “Right now, though, we don’t really have the time for it.”
It felt like that’s what I spent all my time telling Aviva. We need to get things done, not get all creative and spend time on unnecessary extra projects. Maybe when all the yearly campaigns are over, the dinner, the never-ending donor letters, the media communications — maybe then we could start leisurely revamping things. But now, I wished I could tell her, you’ve just walked through the door. Stop questioning what’s working, and let’s just get things done.
After a few weeks, she actually seemed to get the message. Sometimes, she’d give me this half-wounded, half-reproachful look, like I’d hurt her feelings, but seriously? I was being as patient as I could, and she really had to fall in with the job that she was hired for instead of flitting from idea to idea while I continued bearing the brunt of our work.
Strangely, though, things didn’t improve when she changed her approach. She’d come in and ask for the day’s to-do list, and she worked steadily for the most part. But there wasn’t any enthusiasm, and if I didn’t tell her explicitly what needed to be done, I could count on nothing happening. Sometimes I’d come back from a meeting or something and see her playing on her phone.
“Oh, yeah, the printer broke, so I couldn’t do those letters,” she explained once, all innocence.
So look at what’s next on the list! I wanted to explode at her. Or speak to the office, figure out another printer, e-mail the files to the girls in the next office. They could print it for you!
Instead, I fiddled with the printer for a moment — it was out of paper — and immediately, the copies began whirring off.
“Oh, thanks,” Aviva said, reaching for the pile. “What did you want me to do with them again?”
Passive-aggressive, Aharon called it, when I complained to him in a rare moment of privacy. “It’s not fair that she’s not taking some of the workload off you, Toby. That’s what she was hired for. Maybe you should discuss this with your supervisor.”
But I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. It was hard to put into words what was going wrong. A lack of enthusiasm wasn’t a disqualifier. And after all, she did whatever I asked her to do.
That was precisely the problem, though. She did what she was told, nothing more. There was a difference between going overboard with redecorating ideas and taking basic initiative to get on with the next job. But apparently, she didn’t get that nuance.
Then there were the days when I was juggling a million details, the phone didn’t stop ringing, and to top it all off, my mother-in-law had landed in the hospital after a fall, and we were the only ones near enough to be there with her. More than ever, I needed someone to take some of the work off me. Aviva wasn’t that someone.
I gathered from her frequent phone conversations that she had two kids, and her parents lived down the block and were constantly helping out. She hardly even made Shabbos, what with older siblings and both sets of parents living in town. But still, come 4 p.m., she was out the door almost before I could open my mouth to ask her to stay on a little. Deadlines were deadlines, and overtime was just a fact of life in this department. She’d be paid, of course, but this was simply part of the job when you were working with tight deadlines and massive projects.
But she came on time, and didn’t leave early, and made sure to check off the boxes: “I ran the copies off for you.” “The supplier called — here’s the message.” “I ordered those things you asked for.”
And I ended up pulling together the pieces, straining under the workload, dashing from the office to hospital to the kids and back again, all without the help that I’d waited for and needed so badly.
Then came the mishloach manos campaign. It’s a headache every year, first trying to create something that didn’t cost too much but looked beautiful and bekavodig for our big donors, then to write the accompanying letters and to arrange all the logistics of delivery.
Aviva perked up a bit when I asked her to help brainstorm ideas. I showed her the general style that we’ve used from year to year and hoped she could take something along the same lines.
But of course, the new ideas she showed me were ridiculous. Wine racks from Amazon, tree themes and gold wire and multi-layered arrangements. There was no way we could pull that off — not the costs, not the shipping. I could just imagine every other arrangement falling apart en route to the recipient.
“Let’s keep it a bit simpler, okay?” I told her.
A few days before Purim, I was busy assembling the packages in the conference room. We’d ordered beautiful flat trays in the end — Aviva found them after a couple of days of searching — and had to arrange wine, nuts, and chocolates and wrap them. I left Aviva tying ribbons while I went to work on the letters.
The secretary popped in for a moment with a quick question.
“I literally can’t think right now, not until the mishloach manos are all done,” I told her. “It’s the craziest time of year here.”
She tsked sympathetically. “But at least you have an assistant now, right?”
I didn’t answer. Honestly, this kind of assistant meant I was practically working extra. I used to have loads of offers to chip in with the mishloach manos preparations, but now it was all about Aviva, the PR assistant, don’t you have enough help?
Maybe, when Purim is over, I’ll speak to Lani.
In the end, though, she spoke to me.
“Toby, hi! I’ve been meaning to catch you,” she greeted me one morning, when we met again by the coffee machine. “It’s about Aviva.”
I frowned automatically. “What about her?”
Lani spoke carefully. “Look, I’m not here to judge or anything, but I feel like I should mention this, just so you know. Aviva feels a bit like she’s not given enough chance to prove herself. Like things have to be in a very particular way, and there’s not much room for her to give input. What do you think about this?”
What did I think? That I was bending over backwards for this assistant who was oversensitive and hardly pulling her weight, that I’d been so patient and accommodating and had given her every step of instructions, that she had pie-in-the-sky ideas and couldn’t seem to understand priorities.
“Maybe we need to reevaluate this whole assistant thing,” I said.
If I could tell Aviva one thing, it would be: I’d love to work together, but right now it’s not a partnership. It’s a burden.
On paper, the job was perfect.
Part-time, assisting in the PR and media department. I’ve taken some graphics courses and have a flair for words, if I may say so myself. I enjoy working with people but would never try teaching or anything like that. The organization is a great cause, and my colleagues would all be frum women. Like I said, perfect.
When Aunt Lani called with the offer, I closed within a day. The office wasn’t far from where we lived, and the extra income would definitely come in handy. Eli agreed with me. Now that the kids were both out of the house in the mornings, it wouldn’t even be too complicated to arrange child care for the extra hours. My mother would take them when she could, or we’d hire a babysitter. No biggie.
I floated into work on the first day. What would the PR department look like? I imagined a large, airy room, with colorful graphics posters plastering the walls. Soft music playing, upbeat voices making thank-you calls, creative brainstorming meetings with bowls of popcorn — right up my alley.
“Hi!” I greeted the secretary. “I’m the new assistant for the PR department. Where can I find it?”
She blinked at me. “PR? Oh, you mean Toby. Down the hall, fourth door on your left.”
There was no plaque on the door or anything. In fact, it was just a plain door, shut tight. I wondered if there was a private meeting or something going on. Or maybe I was the first one to arrive?
I shrugged, knocked, and walked in.
The room was small. Two desks, back-to-back, plain whitewashed walls. The desks were impeccably neat — though I couldn’t imagine mine remaining so — with a computer, phone, stack of Post-it notes, and a couple of pens.
And, most importantly, there was a woman sitting at one of them. Short, straight, black sheitel, no-nonsense shoes, and wait, was she wearing a suit?
“Hi, I’m Aviva,” I introduced myself. “The new assistant for the PR department?”
“Toby Harris. Nice to meet you,” the woman said, graciously enough, but her tone intimidated me. Were we meant to be working together?
Aunt Lani popped her head in a few minutes later. It was a relief to see her. Toby was in the middle of showing me how to use the group e-mail account, the website, the shared Google sheets, and I was trying to remember everything so I wouldn’t have to ask too many questions.
“How’s it going?” Aunt Lani asked us. Toby nodded, distracted. I gave her a smile and a wave. “Great! See you around,” she said, disappearing again. I felt a pang. I didn’t even know where her office was.
“So, you got that?” Toby asked.
I refocused. “Yeah, I think so.”
She stretched and went back to her desk. “Good. So today, we have to see to a bunch of donor letters. Can you do a mail merge if I send you the basic text?”
I could. She sent me a couple of e-mails, and I started compiling data.
“I have a meeting with the accounting department. I’ll be back soon,” she told me.
I felt bad, but when she left, it was a bit of a relief.
“First day of work! How’d it go?” Eli greeted me, all enthusiasm, when he came home later that evening.
I shrugged. He looked so excited, so eager to hear about my day, that I felt bad to let him down.
I told him about the donor letter, the mail merge, and the rejected improvements. How Toby hadn’t even been interested in why I’d spent the time working on them; how I’d looked at that original letter and thought no way, how the formal, stiff font and wording, the archaic little phrases that had clearly been copied-and-pasted from the same script they’d been following for years — it was so clearly not the best it could be. And I did the mail merge, too; it didn’t take that long.
“I would’ve shown her my changes, just she was at a meeting all morning, and honestly, she didn’t leave me anything else to do. So why not try to jazz things up a bit? And besides, I studied marketing. I know these things, color theory and stuff.”
Eli was sympathetic, but practical. “Maybe she’s just intimidated, Vivs. You’re so talented. Maybe she realized that you did a better job at the graphics than she’s been doing, and it’s hard to accept that. Go slow, and give it time,” he advised.
I wasn’t so sure. Toby didn’t seem the type to be intimidated by anyone. And what did going slow mean, exactly? This was my job as much as it was hers. Shouldn’t I be able to give input when I wanted?
I soon found out the answer.
Toby was a big fan of the old approach. “We’ve always done it like this. It works,” she told me once or twice, her tone just a little bit too patronizing. Sometimes I wanted to scream back, “Maybe it works, but maybe something else will work better?”
Like the day we were working on the website. Toby was happy that I had IT experience. But honestly, uploading videos to update the organization’s website isn’t that complicated. She gave me a bunch of clips of the last fundraising dinner and asked me to find the best ones and post them on the site.
It was my first time working on the website, and I didn’t enjoy it. The captions were boring, the colors lacked pizzazz, even the home page looked tired and unappealing. If I were a donor, I wouldn’t be impressed.
I did the videos first — Toby couldn’t complain this time — and then broached the topic of redoing “the look” of the website.
“We don’t have the money for that,” Toby said.
Here was my chance. I took a breath. “I get that, but this is all stuff I could do. I’ve learned basic web design, and I’m not talking anything grand. Just changing the color scheme, making the font a little larger. Maybe rewriting some of the text so it sounds more 2020, less fact and more fun, you know?”
She didn’t. “Look, it’s a nice idea. Right now, we don’t really have the time, but I’ll keep it in mind, okay?”
That stung. Did she realize how patronizing she sounded?
I left early that day, frustrated. In my mind, I could picture the website with a little more of an updated look — maybe a scrolling banner on the home page with updates flashing on and off. And that awful color scheme — light brown background, black type, green accents — that would have to go.
Or not. With Toby around, nothing looked like it was changing anytime soon.
I was just going to have to put up with it.
Once I realized my ideas weren’t going to get anywhere with Toby’s “if it ain’t broke” approach, I stopped bothering to offer them. Toby clearly wasn’t interested in my input. She wanted it to be exactly how she imagined, so there was no point in trying to get creative.
I’d never understood people who kept plugging away at a job they hated, but now I realized I was one of them. I wasn’t going to quit after two weeks — the money coming in was useful, and besides, what would I tell Aunt Lani? — but without being able to use any creativity, it really was deathly boring.
I stuffed envelopes, updated files, searched for the cheapest products, took messages for Toby when she was at meetings. She didn’t seem too happy, but I didn’t see what she had to complain about. I was turning up on time every day and doing exactly what she asked. (I did notice her correcting my video captions on the website, though. It seemed like anything that wasn’t exactly how it always was ended up being corrected when I wasn’t looking.)
Still, the environment was stifling. I felt so micromanaged and underappreciated. I was sure many people would’ve upped and left by now.
I’ll give it till Pesach, I decided one day. I could handle a few more weeks. After that, maybe it would be time to move on.
I didn’t count on Purim.
“Mishloach manos for the big donors, it’s a massive project,” Toby explained. “I have the recipient list here. I’ve updated it already since last year. I also have a file with the pictures of all our previous gift arrangements. We don’t want to repeat, but we need to keep the same style. Oh, and there’s a ridiculously low budget, as always.”
Mishloach manos! Images jumped into my head: rose-gold and black would be beautiful. I could find a wine rack on Amazon maybe, rose-gold of course, and we could center the arrangement around that — black velvet as the backdrop, multi-layered. It would be a real statement: smart, sophisticated, sleek.
But then I clicked on Toby’s file. Baskets in the earlier years, transitioning into flat chocolate-and-nut arrangements, eventually morphing into a series of classic wine-bottle-and-chocolate display, wrapped in cellophane and tied with a large bow of varying shades. Last year the color scheme was lilac.
“So, we could base it off that one,” Toby said, pointing at the prim image labeled Mishloach Manos 2019. “Maybe go with green this time. Order a nice tray so they have a souvenir as well. Any ideas?”
Well, she was asking. I said I’d do some research and spent a happy half hour searching budget-friendly wine bottle holders. There were some incredible options, like the one on Amazon styled like a bicycle. I printed off a bunch and gave them to Toby.
“Wine racks? I don’t know, how will the arrangement work? We need to get them delivered too. I don’t know how shipping-friendly this would be,” she told me.
I said I thought we could order one or two, experiment, save costs by splurging on one gorgeous centerpiece and keep the rest of the mishloach manos package elegant but minimalist.
“Let’s stick to the tray with wine and chocolates,” Toby said decisively. “Could you search for a nice flat tray? Keep the budget in mind.”
She handed back the page of images. And with that, the subject was closed.
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. My opinion was obviously not needed here.
“Aviva! We work in the same building, and I literally never see you.” Aunt Lani was all smiles. She walked around the conference room, admiring the mishloach manos I’d just finished wrapping. Stupid green bows. So last decade.
“Yeah, it’s funny,” I said morosely.
She looked up, sharply. “What’s the matter? Is everything okay?”
I couldn’t keep it in anymore. With a quick glance to check no one was around, I nudged the door shut and blurted out, “It’s just… really difficult, working with Toby.”
Aunt Lani frowned, concerned. “In what way?”
I told her about the ideas I had, the way everything was summarily dismissed, the feeling of being relegated to the mundane tasks instead of having an opinion in the creative parts of the process. Toby was a perfectionist, but so conservative, everything had to be done just how it always was. It wasn’t me. And in my humble opinion, it wasn’t best for the organization, either. Why not let some sparkle in, make some change, allow for a new approach?
Aunt Lani listened to the words that just tumbled out, until I paused for breath. Then she said, “I hear you, Aviva. You make a lot of sense. Let me discuss this with Toby, see what she has to say. You have a lot to contribute, and I really want to make this work.”
I watched her go, my heart in my throat. Speak to Toby? Oh, boy. This was going to be a disaster.
If I could tell Toby one thing, it would be: I have so much to give, if I’d be allowed to share. We’re on the same team here. Why can’t I have the opportunity to make real change without being met with a critical response?
(Originally Featured in Mishpacha, Issue 801)
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