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What does a Secretary do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Secretaries can have a range of duties depending on their workplace, but in general they are in charge of keeping offices running smoothly by performing a mix of administrative and low-level management tasks. These professionals commonly answer telephones and e-mail correspondence and manage filing systems; they may also sort mail, organize meetings, and coordinate inter-office communications. In most cases, the work is considered “entry level,” which means that no special skills or educational qualifications are required for success. Just the same, there is usually room for advancement. People with a lot of potential or experience often find themselves in the running for increasingly prestigious jobs with higher and higher pay.

Administrative assistant, clerk, and personal assistant jobs are usually included within this umbrella. All of these positions are administrative and all usually center on paperwork and electronic document management. One of the only exceptions is government-level or other official “secretaries,” such as the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of the Treasury. Though these titles may suggest a purely low-level function, officials in these roles are generally quite high ranking and typically do little to no administrative or clerical work themselves.

Clerical Skills

Office management is one of the most important secretarial tasks. This category of work can be somewhat broad, but almost always involves administrative and clerical duties. Secretaries commonly manage office paperwork, which includes sending and receiving mail, creating and organizing filing systems, and managing correspondence. In most settings, computer and word processing skills are essential.

Answering telephone calls is also an important part of the job in most places. Secretaries are often the first people clients and customers will speak to when phoning a business. As such, good manners and a courteous demeanor are usually required. Professionals must typically show a great deal of tact when taking messages, placing callers on hold, or answering basic questions.

Scheduling and Calendaring

In many settings, administrative personnel are in charge of managing office calendars as well as individual employee calendars. They are often responsible for scheduling meetings and appointments and watching out for conflicts and double-bookings. This task is particularly pronounced in places like medical practices where patients are constantly calling for appointments, but can occur anywhere higher-level employees are “in demand.” Even if it is just a matter of scheduling a lunch meeting or arranging dinner reservations, secretaries are usually some of the first people executives and managers turn to for help.

Management Duties

In addition to having clerical skills, administrative staff must be managers of time and people. They must anticipate the needs of office personnel, solve internal problems quickly, and work efficiently to coordinate and bring different people together. Excellent people skills are really important, particularly when it comes to managing executives and other important staff members. A lot of the job may be “behind the scenes” with secretaries anticipating their superiors’ needs and demands before requests are even made.

Position in Staff Hierarchy

In most offices, secretaries are considered somewhat low-level and are almost always near the bottom of the office pecking order. They usually answer to both mid-level and senior management, and they must typically help everyone equally. Large businesses and offices often have entire secretarial pools, however, in which case something of a more nuanced hierarchy emerges. In these settings, some workers may be tasked with menial jobs like filing and answering phone calls, while others may manage schedules and interact with higher-ranking staff. Advancement in these offices usually depends on time and experience.

Some of the most prestigious work a secretary can get is in the realm of personal assistance. Many senior executives and corporate leaders have dedicated administrators whose whole work life is devoted to the care and management of one leader’s schedule. This type of secretary must typically work long hours and deal with sometimes unpredictable demands and requests, but is often among the best paid and most respected of the profession.

Training and Schooling Requirements

Different employers have different requirements for how their secretaries are educated. In some cases, a high school diploma or equivalent is all that is needed, while in others, actual secretarial certifications or degrees are preferred. Community colleges and vocational schools frequently offer programs where interested students can learn the ins and outs of word processing and office management. Taking this sort of course is often a good idea even if it is not strictly required, as it can help an application stand out and can give new hires a leg up when it comes to experience.

Special Circumstances: Official and Government Secretaries

The term “secretary” may not always attach to an office administrator. In some cases, particularly those involving high-ranking government officials, the designation may be used in an honorary capacity to indicate management of a broad sector of affairs. Officials who head up departments or oversee major governmental divisions may use secretarial titles, but their jobs should not be confused with more common office management roles.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon925957 — On Jan 15, 2014

I'm the secretary for a fishing lure supply company. Yesterday my boss asked me to do something that I'm not sure is within my job description. He asked me if I would rub foot lotion on his feet, and insisted that I take the little pieces of lint from between his toes and place them on my desk, only to have to return them to his toes after his lotioning.

Is this normal?

By anon356593 — On Nov 26, 2013

I am a 17 year old girl and want to become a secretary in the future but it is just that I always feel melancholy when friends are chatting and saying so many things about their future careers. Sometimes I feel euphoria, but I always pray to God almighty in heaven that I should one day be a doctor in the future.

By anon354081 — On Nov 05, 2013

I've been a secretary for over 30 years.

By anon352353 — On Oct 22, 2013

What does it mean when another secretary says to you, 'you almost look too good to be your boss's secretary'?

Another secretary said this to me and I have no idea what she is implying.

By anon345877 — On Aug 23, 2013

I have an upcoming meeting with people from different companies. So how can I be a good secretary by taking notes about what we are discussing? Our company deals with intercom installations.

By SunilG — On Jun 13, 2013

I am 23 years old. When I joined our carrier as a secretary, I was very bad, and depressed as well. But someone told me, how to improve my secretarial position in an office. Please read the following points carefully.

Firstly, improve your English from reliable sources like newspapers, magazines, novels, etc.

Secondly, make your boss's job as easy as possible. Arrange all needs like stationary which used by your boss or in your department.

Finally, you should know how to book air travel and hotels and how to manage your boss's calendar.

All the above points have helped me succeed. Now I am an executive assistant and my job is going very well.

By anon322175 — On Feb 26, 2013

Not a job I would recommend and it wasn't my first choice, but 30-plus years ago there weren't many choices unless you went on to university, which we couldn't have afforded.

For the range of skills, responsibilities and tasks, you can look forward to below national average earnings and often being treated like dirt. Yes, if you get into a good company, you may be able to move into other areas. With computers and people doing their own letters, etc., some companies think they can do without us but they don't realize the risk they run of appearing unprofessional with correspondence being sent out full of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, not to mention inconsistencies in style and formatting! There's a lot more to being a secretary than meets the eye and you build up experience and knowledge over time.

As someone else said, we make the 'managers' look good and often put in a lot of the ground work, but they're the ones who take home the big pay cheques!

By anon316860 — On Jan 30, 2013

Being a secretary or Administrative Assistant as they call it, stinks. Do aim higher -- much higher. It is boring, it doesn't pay well and you get no respect. None. I did it for four years and hated every second. I could barely make ends meet.

By anon315712 — On Jan 25, 2013

You receive a call that your boss had an accident on his way to some official duty. As a secretary, what will you do?

By anon308151 — On Dec 09, 2012

My boss is also my live-in boyfriend of 10 years. He is self-employed. He doesn't want to get married.

I am not on his documents as a beneficiary. He has three grown children who are beneficiaries. He doesn't have me on the lease, I have no retirement and no company benefits. Recently, his aged father found that he could only manage his large T Bill fund through a computer, which he doesn't have.

My boss now makes scheduling reinvestments for his father my responsibility. I don't want this responsibility. Is this something that falls under "and other duties..."? Doesn't this put me in a bad position?

By anon304916 — On Nov 22, 2012

What are the issues faced by the company secretary?

By anon297917 — On Oct 17, 2012

Do not become a secretary. It is, in most cases, a menial, dead-end job -- job, not a career.

I took the safe route and got a job at a law firm. I answer phones, type stuff, put files away, make copies, and stare at the wall to pass the time. There is usually no opportunity to advance. You do not get paid very well and do not get the respect you deserve. Easy? Yes. Satisfying? No. Challenging? No. Rewarding? No.

To those young people saying they want to become a secretary, think again. At the very least, find a job with a company where you could potentially move up. Example: at a law firm, you cannot work your way up to being a lawyer (must go to law school). At a school, you cannot work your way up to being a teacher (must go to school). See a trend here? Go to college and get a relevant degree!

By anon270302 — On May 22, 2012

I am a secretary. I have been since leaving college and the one good thing I will say is: I've never found it hard to get a job. I have traveled, returned and found work immediately. I have worked in the UK and the US as a PA/Secretary, can't complain about finding work.

However, I hate it. It's the most boring job in the world and to the young girls' writing on here, please aim higher. I have a 10 year old and a 12 year old and I will encourage them find their passions, don't just fall into this 'safe' trap. It is a trap. Now I'm older and need the job to pay the bills I can't get out. I fear I will be bored out of my brain until I retire. Ugh. The thought is so depressing.

By anon269228 — On May 17, 2012

I am 16 and doing business and admin in college. Is there anything else I can do except secretary work? Please help. Thanks for your advice. --Maria

By anon242459 — On Jan 23, 2012

To the person who asked if secretaries have to clean windows and floors: If your boss asks you to do that and you are the secretary, I would ask your boss how much the janitor makes and tell him you will clean the windows and floors if he'll pay you the janitor's pay as well as the secretary's pay.

The secretary is the person who works the hardest in a company and makes the least amount of money, on top of being treated with the utmost disrespect by bosses, co-workers and clients.

Secretaries also make the boss look good so he or she can get paid the big bucks. If you are considering becoming a secretary, my advice is run the other way! Worst job in the world and you will be lucky if people treat you like a human.

By anon240173 — On Jan 13, 2012

I have been a secretary for the last 30 years! It wasn't my first career choice. Trust me, you don't ever want to be a secretary or personal assistant. It is the crappiest job in the world! Trust me: don't do it. Don't waste your career. Do something else!

You are looked down on, not respected and treated like crap! Take it from one who knows!

By anon239213 — On Jan 07, 2012

I am 12 years old and I would love to be a secretary but the only thing I'm scared about my english because i read a comment and it said you have to have good grammar and you have to be good at multitasking. That's scary if you really think about it, but I really like this career.

By anon229321 — On Nov 13, 2011

Do secretaries have to clean the office as well (cleaning the floor and the windows)? because my boss asked me to and I was wondering if I really have to do it?

By anon218944 — On Oct 01, 2011

I have to write a speech because I'm the secretary at my school. People seem to like me! I don't want to be one!

By anon170729 — On Apr 27, 2011

what is the usefulness of a secretary with introduction of computers?

By anon118296 — On Oct 13, 2010

thanks for the info. like anon2179, I am working to be a secretary also.

By mowava — On Sep 02, 2010

I need help with my project. What is a secretary's function before, during and after an AGM? I

will appreciate the help. Thanks.

By anon106619 — On Aug 26, 2010

Can you, please give me three reasons to be a secretary? I like this job, but when I am asked to give the three reasons I don't know the right answer. Thanks in advance.

By anon99245 — On Jul 25, 2010

I need some help! Can anybody there can give me an answer to this question? Are the jobs of a secretary very important in an office? Please help.

By anon92016 — On Jun 25, 2010

help me please. I am a delegate from my school in an english contest and I have to show how to be a good secretary. just tell me how to do that. thanks!

By anon88011 — On Jun 02, 2010

i need help with my secretary school speech. can i get some help! please.

By anon80553 — On Apr 27, 2010

thank you very much.

By anon78363 — On Apr 18, 2010


By anon74082 — On Mar 30, 2010

thanks! helped me on my class project.

By anon64803 — On Feb 09, 2010

thanks for the post. it really helped me in my class.

By xuelovehome — On Jan 20, 2010

As a department secretary, you have to multi-task. If you are busy with your boss’ assignment and a salesman comes to you with a million dollar deal that requires your immediate help and at the same time, a customer calls and complains, what do you attend to first and why?

who can help me answer this question,please

By anon47683 — On Oct 06, 2009

I'm running for secretary for my theater club. any tips on my speech I'm saying?

By anon46385 — On Sep 25, 2009

Hello to you all! I have been reading your queries with interest. I have been a secretary in all its guises for many years, and can offer some advice; you will need to be well spoken, have a good command of the English language (do not use slang words or phrases), and to understand grammar and punctuation. You must be well groomed and professional in your attire, and be able to undertake your duties with a smile - whatever they are. Think of a swan; it gildes across the pond effortlessly, but its legs are paddling for all they're worth! I hope this hasn't put you all off, as it can be a great job, and with the right company, can take you all over the world.

By anon45509 — On Sep 17, 2009

It is good to see kids exploring the working world and finding the time to research new ideas and possible avenues for their future. Thumbs up for that! That is truly inspring. Continue to keep up with the research and strive for the education--it really is the leading edge in today's job market. I hope you kids strive for bright futures and know that it is harder than it may seem, but as Winston Churchill once said, "Never, never give up."

By anon43854 — On Sep 02, 2009

hi i'm 17 and i want to be a secretary. how may years does it take?

By sarahrose09 — On May 21, 2009

Hey i'm a 13 year old girl.

I'm a lot like one of the other commenters i read.

I've had people tell me i should be a secretary but i had no idea what they did so i didn't want to be one but now that i see what they do i really want to be one and i think i could be good at it!

But i'd like to know more about the schooling you need for it.

Because i'm really thinking about it and i'd love to do it so if you know anything about the schooling help me out. please and thank you

By anon24448 — On Jan 12, 2009

I am a 12yr. old girl. And I have a good Idea about having a class election. My teacher has agreed with it, and I have to pick something to be elected for besides president.

I picked Writer and Secretary. I had many questions about what a secretary does and how they help the world.

When I read this article, it helped me a lot.

It told me what a secretary does, and how they run their job.

This has helped me a lot on my paper persuading my teacher to use my idea. It worked!

By anon23932 — On Jan 05, 2009

im 13 years old just and i don't know what i want to be when i grow older i may seen young but i have a mature attitude as it might not show towards my parents but i like the idea of becoming a secretary because it's a well organized job and includes ict which i love at the moment i get bullied at the moment and switch off at times and concentrate on careers because that is the best subject i like to look at i looked at this article and was impressed the information in it was detailed keep it up!

By anon21793 — On Nov 21, 2008

what are some challenges that administrative assistants face?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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