"So, what are you looking for in a new hire?"
As professional recruiters, this is a question we find ourselves asking every day.
I wish I could say the answers were always based on a candidate's experience, education, or skillset. But in the sometimes murky world of secretarial recruitment, the answer can occasionally be infinitely more depressing.
"I'd like a blonde" is one that can come up (yes, still, in 2016!). "She should have a nice voice" is common too, as is the ubiquitous "no, I definitely wouldn't consider a male PA."
On the face of it, recruitment seems simple: our task is to find our clients the best possible person for the job. However, in the world of secretarial support - particularly when recruiting for front of house roles - the reality is that this is sometimes not enough.
There are occasions when a recruiter will deliver the perfect fit, and yet the client won't make the hire. I used to spend hours agonising over why hugely qualified candidates were passed over time and time again, or why male assistants were finding it so tough to find work. Gradually I, and other successful professional recruiters, had to accept the sad reality: within a minority of businesses, hiring support talent is the last bastion of 'acceptable' sexism.
A lot of agencies like to pretend this doesn't exist any more; it does. Companies celebrated for their stringent diversity and inclusion policies, their commitment to quotas for female-led management teams or their total lack of a glass ceiling will also employ an overwhelmingly female battalion of PAs, Secretaries and Receptionists.
This isn't always because hiring managers are discriminating against male candidates, of course - often the perception amongst candidates is that these roles are female-dominated and, in turn, the available candidate pool will reflect that. There is an issue, however, when that employer expects their new hires to look a certain way.
In the world of the secretarial agency, these 'hidden extras', additional to the main requirements, are called 'adhering to house style.' We call it discrimination.
Some companies dress it up (pardon the pun). They will ask their agency to ensure that candidates sent to them are 'presentable'; this can mean many different things, from the wearing of a uniform (usually a blouse, skirt and almost always heels) to how a female receptionist ought to wear her hair. Internal job descriptions will communicate the need for a receptionist to have a 'neutral' accent. (Neutral, by the way, never means neutral. What on earth is a neutral accent, anyway? No - neutral often means middle class, ideally non-regional).
I love our industry and I'm highlighting these flaws because I believe that things need to change. I'm now in my thirties and run Sidekicks London, a successful support recruitment business, but in my late teens and through my twenties I worked as a secretary, and spent much of that time temping in a variety of administrative roles.
I know the feeling of walking onto the first day of a temp job and wanting to be the very best I can be. I've seen the nervous 18-year-old girl in her first week being told off for wearing flat shoes (that were by all accounts very smart and definitely corporate), or the career receptionist being told to have her hair tied up in a ponytail instead of being pinned back, or the secretary being admonished for having unpainted nails.
I've seen the indescribable shame, upon finding out that the receptionists uniform is only made in sizes 6-10, of a brilliant temp having to leave their assignment as their size 12 body just doesn't fit the mould. That person left with no money made that day. I quickly learned exactly what an agency meant when they asked me firmly to ensure I arrived looking 'polished'.
One of my biggest frustrations is that we - and other good agencies like us - have to consistently fight for recognition for the role of the assistant as a profession. Often it's seen as a fall-back - something you do if you fail your exams or can't quite make it anywhere else.
The reality is unbelievably different: top assistants in London routinely earn upwards of £80K a year. Yes, they will often be on call 24/7, but they will have unparalleled access to their Principals lives and a unique top-down view of how their businesses are run. They will be expert fixers, with an unending capacity for sheer hard graft and the ability to make it all seem effortless. They will be trusted to buy houses, commission yachts, hire and fire staff, negotiate with banks - in very few other professions is such a varied, intense workload shouldered by one individual.
These are men and women who support leaders who change the world. Less Moneypenny to Bond; more Robin to Batman. Why, then, does it still matter at all what they look like?
As a secretarial recruiter, the reality is that for every strong, successful super-assistant we work with, we'll have a young, nervous would-be receptionist or admin assistant looking for his or her first job. We have a duty of care to each and every one of our candidates; we would never dream of putting them into a difficult situation or one in which they will be discriminated against.
However, the reality is that many agencies often don't have a true grasp of the environment they are sending their candidates into. No amount of checks or vetting can reveal a company's true internal culture and it's sometimes the bigger, supposedly diversity and equality proactive companies that are the worst offenders.
It's not all doom and gloom: whilst I feel frustration because things aren't moving quickly enough, there can be no doubt that the situation is getting better. We have the privilege of working with a set of incredible clients who - without exception - provide our candidates with wonderful, inspiring, inclusive places to work. My mother, who worked in administration in London in the seventies, tells me bluntly how it was then for women in the workplace and I feel utterly horrified. Things have moved on.
However, whilst the typing pool is (mostly) no longer seen as an acceptable target for leering and bottom-pinching, allowing discrimination to flourish unchecked in the guise of official-sounding rules about 'dress code' and 'house styles' is simply not progress enough.
The support profession is a vital one, and we all deserve better.